“This strip of saltmarsh, not quite the land, not quite the sea”: the wet, uncompromising North Norfolk coastline forms the setting for Jeremy Page’s 2008 novel Salt, newly adapted for the stage by Robin McLoughlin, who also stars in fEast’s touring production as the charismatic Kipper, a mysterious, defensive man with a fascination for chemistry, who shares an ill-fated passion for the same girl as his brother Shrimp. Salt tells a tale which unfolds over three generations; what begins as a reasonably cheerful, warm-hearted Second World War love story results, many years later, in a harrowing family tragedy which centres on that most unfortunately tired of Norfolk tropes – incest. Salt promises much with its folk-infused, cryptic opening lines and wryly humourous early scenes, and produces some strong performances from a talented cast, but ultimately this play fails to see itself through, meandering from romance to family tension to horror-strewn final crisis without much subtlety or conviction.
Coming to the play without any prior knowledge of Page’s novel, what impresses first and foremost is the powerful evocation of the Norfolk coastline in McLoughlin’s lines: a feeling of creeping stagnation haunts the play, depicting a horizon and a community paralysed by the relentless sucking standoff of mud and tide. Some memorable Norfolk characters are created in a series of fine performances: as well as McLoughlin’s own brooding Kipper, we have a memorably fragile Lil from Katie-Anna Whiting, a deeply affecting Bryn Pugh from Owen Evans (surely the ultimate maestro of the perfect Norfolk accent), and an unnervingly tragic Shrimp (who prefers to be known as George) from Tom Girvin, who gives a finely wrought and deeply moving performance of a man who tries his best to be his best, but ultimately fails spectacularly. Sam Thompson is an exciting young talent to watch in the tortured role of Pip, voicing the inner thoughts of a mainly silent rural child as well as breaking into convincing German, in a demanding performance which he executes with unfailing energy and presence. Norfolk accents are observed with pleasing accuracy throughout, though Sally Blouet’s otherwise excellent Goose can be inexplicably hesitant from line to line. Tabatha Woodgett’s clever stage design uses simple wooden crates, absolutely in keeping with the maritime setting, and an angular wooden boat shell which can be upended to double as the back view of a small cottage: lean, ingenious, and absorbing to watch. The folk-inspired soundscape from Mark Fawcett, with fine singing and playing from the cast, gives the piece a suitably salty atmosphere.
The setting is great, and the performances are reasonably strong; the real problem with this play is, unfortunately, its structure, which is the one thing director Dawn Finnerty can’t control. A taut beginning unpeels into meaningless action which loses any sense of urgency; the story rambles on, and then just when any development of theme seems to been altogether forgotten, the bomb of surprise – which is disappointingly unsurprising – is dropped in the bottom of the resulting mess. The big shock is too little, too late, to genuinely command our sympathy, while the choice of plot catalyst is deeply unfortunate: when it comes to Norfolk, incest is a trope as exhausted as bad cider in Somerset. Salt doesn’t quite have the sour worldliness of a Thomas Hardy novel, or the bitter immediacy of Ibsen’s Ghosts, though it seems to be struggling towards both in a confused way. However, too much of it unrolls with linear regularity, producing something more like an aggressively depressing episode of The Archers (with a few good Norfolk jokes en route) than a harshly majestic unveiling of inevitable, impending doom. This may not be McLoughlin’s doing: it may be down to Jeremy Page, or it may simply be that what works in the open skies of a novel lands awkwardly on the cramped deck of a play. But with so much skill available on stage, the play’s overall weakness seems a pity: despite touching humour, abject despair and considerable aggression, it never quite finds its emotional centre.
- Rating: Two
- Reviewed at The Garage, Norwich on Friday 20 April
- Touring across Norfolk until 5 May 2018: details here